Warning: This article contains some graphic images.
The career of the photographer known as Boogie is as diverse as it comes. He's known for shooting athletes like Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and soccer star Mario Balotelli for high-profile companies like Puma and Nike—but he's also published six monographs that focus on the harrowing street culture of cities such as São Paulo and Belgrade.
Boogie was born and raised in Belgrade, and grew up around cameras; his father and grandfather were both amateur photographers. He didn't take an interest in the art until his country descended into war-torn chaos in the 90s. At the time, photography helped him to distance himself from the living hell around him. Boogie credits witnessing the turmoil in Serbia as the catalyst that defined the subject matter he'd continue exploring throughout his career, which gained steam once he started shooting in Brooklyn.
In 1998, Boogie won the green card lottery and moved to New York. He worked all kinds of odd jobs to survive, while still shooting on the side. Through a chance encounter, some gang members in Bed-Stuy asked him to take photos of them holding guns, leading him down a rabbit hole into the underbelly of some of New York's roughest neighborhoods. It's All Good, his first monograph, published in 2006, was the result. The book features photos of members of the Latin Kings and other gangs, as well as drug dealers, drug users, and marginalized people stuck in destitution. But unlike the average street photographer who snaps away without getting to know his or her subjects, Boogie is a documentarian who actively enters the lives of the people he shoots, building trust and gaining access to their homes, their safe houses, their squats.
"People always say you shouldn't cross certain lines, but the deeper you go the better shots you take, and no one can tell you where those lines are," he told us. "Then, all of sudden, you're in the middle of madness and it becomes very interesting."
At the same time, he says, "I think my shots show there's nothing glamorous in any of that shit." powerHouse Books is publishing a tenth anniversary addition of It's All Good, featuring a variety of photos that never made the original edition. VICE talked to Boogie about his work, and he provided us with commentary on some of the more provocative images from the updated collection.
This shotgun, nicknamed "The Terminator," is displayed with Blood members' bandannas covering it in the hallway of some projects. I think my shots show there's nothing glamorous in any of that shit. Even in movies they're trying to glamorize the whole gang thing. I think it's rough, it's hard, and it's shitty that people die over $20.
After the first edition of It's All Good came out, I took it to the gangsters and they loved it. They took me to some safe house and showed me all kinds of other shit. When I said, "Dudes, I needed this for my book, what the fuck, why are you showing me this now?" they were like, "Man, you could have put us all in prison, man. Now you can see it all." I started shooting around 2003 and I finished [It's All Good] around 2006, so some of these photos in this updated anniversary edition were taken after the first exposé was published.
When I was done with It's All Good, I kept going to the projects, and went to these gangsters to give them the book. They were really happy about it, but I saw that nothing is changing, and it seems like nothing will ever change.
I remember the first time I went to Bed-Stuy, just walking around, a white guy with a camera and my photo bag. I'm walking around and these guys from across the street were like, Hey, man, come over here, and we started talking. I guess it was my accent—I don't sound like anyone they hate—and ten days later they're like, Hey, Boogie, would you like to take some photos of us with guns? I'm like, Man, this is not happening. What the fuck? That was pretty amazing.
This is a warning sign from the Latin Kings to a snitch. I heard that they later killed the guy. When you go to these neighborhoods, you realize that probably at least 50 percent of the people who live there have something to do with drugs. They're dealers or junkies or ex-dealers and ex-junkies. A lot of ex-convicts.
I love pit bulls, but one of the worst things I saw while taking the photos that ended up in It's All Good was a pit bull killing a cat. Even now when I think about it, it makes me sick. I couldn't get it out of my head for years. I really don't know why, but I shoot a lot of dogs.
Guns, money, and drugs—and plenty of them. You cannot really plan these things. I'm going to go to this ghetto and I'm gonna take photos of people with guns. It doesn't happen like that. It's impossible. One thing that surprised me was the amount of money people were actually making. They would probably make more money working at McDonald's than selling crack on the street. Only the top guys are making serious money. These kids are killing each other over $20.
This was the first time [gang members] invited me to take photos of them with guns. It was insane. We were running around the hallways with guns, loaded guns, pointed at my face. I couldn't sleep that night, but the next day I went back for more. It takes time to build the trust. For example, I have photos with the face and the gun in the same shot, but I didn't use those for the book. I never wanted to get anyone in trouble. I would never do that.
I was babysitting while their mom went to buy drugs. They are now in foster care. These drug users live on welfare and they have kids and they feed shit to their kids and the rest of the money they spend on drugs. They steal, they shoplift, they sell shit, and they buy drugs. It's crazy, and I'm pretty sure it's not better now. With the kind of photography I do, thinking is the enemy. If you start thinking too much, you lose the shot. I just react and shoot. Usually the first one is the best.
She's 23. I remember the first time I took photos of this girl shooting up I was like, Why the fuck do I need this in my life? I was standing on the bathtub as she was shooting up. While I was taking photos it was fine. I can disconnect. It's all good, and then later it's like, Wow, what the fuck? But I went back again and kept taking photos. Thank God this book happened.